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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 24
Second Chance

 

Jon was weary of seeing the inside walls of the assembly hall. It seemed that for one reason or another, he and the rest of the Bonestell colonists were called to gather at least twice daily for some important news, announcement or special last minute training session that was getting crammed into their remaining time on Earth. They all now realized that the accelerated training they'd had in recent weeks had been in preparation for the pending announcement. Jon understood the need for it all, but he wished there was somewhere else large enough to hold them all for a change of scenery for these final few days. They had been called back into the assembly hall so many times that Sissy didn't even bother announcing what each meeting was for anymore.

One thing of interest that Sissy did have to announce was the winning entry for the naming contest.  The first attempt at colonizing the distant world of Bonestell was an apparent failure shrouded in mystery, but there were high hopes that a second attempt to settle the planet would meet with greater success due to the genetically enhanced Furs that would be going this time. Once all the entries were in and presented to the group for selection, there was one submission most liked by the Furs who voted on them.

Once established, the colony site would be known as Second Chance. One person suggested they could call themselves the Second Chance Pack, modeled after a wolf pack, but Carl was argued down good-naturedly for promoting his own Fur race this way. The colony would no longer be made up of a single Fur type, but was a mixture of them all. The grey wolf backed down with grace and a smile.

A number of the Furs were envious of the winner, Hiamovi Avonaco, since the winning entry in the contest was awarded a twenty-four hour pass to go off the compound. That wasn't enough time for an extended trip anywhere, so the grizzly was planning to take a bus from Saranac Lake down to Albany just to get away for a while. He had never been there before, but he was certain he could find good food and some entertainment.

He had already received several offers to buy or trade off his winning ticket, some even suggesting that as the colony captain he should stay at the Institute to coordinate the preparations, but he'd had cabin fever with the Institute just as much as any of them and refused to give it up.  He would be leaving late Saturday morning, the same day as the open house for friends and relatives to visit; he'd had no one who could come up with so little advanced warning, so the opportunity to get away came at a good time. In the meantime, however, he had to attend all the assemblies with everyone else.

In an effort to change up his routine a little, Jon had begun sitting with other Furs that he didn't normally hang around with. This time, he sat with Dara and Alicia, and although they didn't mind his presence, their chitchat about the male physique of the Ursis cousins did nothing to draw him into their conversation. He sat beside the polar bear with a hand unconsciously resting upon his injured shoulder, but the two females carried on their discussion as if he hadn't been there.  Jon sighed inwardly and began looking forward to the start of the meeting.

Sitting nearby, Masanori Mochizuki chatted quietly with Kim and Yuki Tanaka. With his wife by his side, the older red panda faced Yuki and held her Canis hands in his own. The Akita Inu was the Fur type the doctor had originally intended to become, and although he hadn't known ahead of time that one was resident at the North American branch of the Institute, he was pleased to see her here. 

Chieko was not as pleased as her husband, however, and she sat by quietly with a sharp eye on the potential competition for her mate's affection. To the humans who saw the female red panda, Chieko was thought of as cute, but the only one whose opinion mattered to her on that respect was Masanori. Their banishment from the Earth had come about due to her love for him, and she was not about to lose him to another female at any cost, whether the threat was real or merely implied.

She looked around the room for a moment and spied Jon sitting beside a couple of bears who were practically ignoring him. He looked uncomfortable, but she couldn’t tell if it was because of his companions or the injury to his shoulder. She caught his eye with a simple gesture when he looked her direction and he gave her an immediate smile.  She looked at her husband with a brief glance and then looked back at the cougar with a shrug. The feline read her expression correctly and got up from his seat. The conversing bears didn’t even notice when he left them and made his way across the assembly to sit down in the empty seat beside the cute little red panda.

“Hello, Chieko,” he said quietly.

She gave him a warm smile and a partial bow from her seated position. “Good afternoon, Jon,” she replied courteously. “How is your shoulder today?”

“It’s still a little stiff and sore, but I can now get down on all fours for a while,” he answered. “I’ve tried to exercise it as much as it will allow, but the injury is healing on its own schedule and won’t let me do as much as I’d like.”

“The exercise will help the healing,” Chieko agreed, “but please do not task yourself too much. Your injury may not be fully healed by the time we go into cryogenic sleep for the long voyage to Bonestell, and since that slows down all bodily processes, you might wake up with it still in need of further healing.”

“Hmm, that’s a good thing to know,” Jon remarked with a frown. “I know it will take several weeks to get there, but I guess I just assumed the healing would continue while I’m sleeping.”  He shrugged and immediately felt the soreness. “I thought I would wake up feeling like my old self again.”

“I have never experienced cryogenic sleep myself,” the red panda said with a smile, “but I’ve heard that it’s best to go into it as healthy as you can since that’s how you will come out of it on the other side.”

“I will keep that in mind when I exercise,” Jon replied. “What about yourself? You still have a little over two months left of your transformation, don't you?”

Chieko looked down at her hands and held them together. The fur of her arms and hand paws was midnight black and had a thick texture that looked almost velvety. “I am in constant pain somewhere,” she admitted quietly. “I knew my husband went through this very thing, but I did not realize how intense it could be at times.” She looked up at him with a sad expression. “It has been difficult to bear, and since we will all be going into cryogenic sleep soon, I will still have to deal with the changes even after we get to our new home.”

Jon reached out and put gentle fingers upon the back her hands. “Medicines can only help a little, but the worst of it is already behind you. All of us here have been through this already, so if you need anyone to lean on, don't be shy about finding someone to help you through it.”

“Thank you.”

“How are you and Masanori getting along with the others here in the Adirondacks?”

Chieko cast a sidelong glance at her mate, who continued to chat with Kim and Yuki as if they were old friends.  The Tanaka sisters may have been of Japanese descent, but both had grown up in the United States since childhood and had only visited their native country once on an overseas vacation.

“My husband seems to have an easier time making new friends than I do,” she replied wistfully. “Although your associates have treated me well enough, I can’t help but feel their scorn when they look at me.”  She turned her paws over, wrapped her shortened fingers around Jon’s and held them warmly. “I am thankful for your friendship,” she added. “I just wish others would treat me as kindly.”

Jon gave her a warm smile and lightly squeezed her fingers. “I think you have more friends than you know,” he told her quietly. “I’ve heard others discussing you and your husband and there are those who are quite touched by what you and he have done for one another in your situation. If you wish, I can introduce you around a little more.” He leaned closer to her large triangular ears and added in a whisper. “There are more than a few who think you’re absolutely adorable, too.”

Chieko pulled back and studied him, sure he was teasing her, but when she saw the sincerity in his eyes, she gave him a wide smile. “I don’t think I’m all that,” she whispered back, “but thank you for telling me. It makes me feel a little more accepted.”

Her smile warmed Jon down to his toes. He was one of them who thought she was one of the cutest Furs he had ever seen, and with his original attitudes toward furmankind in general, that was saying something.  The two of them turned their topics to more mundane matters while they awaited the show to begin.

Conversations around the assembly hall continued even as Marcelo approached the lectern moments later. He and his guest had arrived later than he had planned, so he pulled his gavel out from within the podium and had to knock on the wooden top several times before anyone noticed his presence. 

“Listen up, folks,” he called out over the conversations. “We have a special guest with us today and he has some information I'm sure you'd like to know.”  There were several grumbles in the crowd. The director had begun almost every session with similar words. Marcelo held up a hand for their attention.

“Visiting our Institute today is Dr. Adalberto Bohnestiel, an astronomer from the Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon, Portugal who discovered three extrasolar planets orbiting yellow star εEri2 almost twenty years ago.” It was unlikely that more than a handful of the attendees paid attention to what was being said; most of the others were only half listening in the tedious boredom of endless meetings.  “Of these three worlds, Dr. Bohnestiel's greatest discovery was the second planet, the only terrestrial biosphere in the system. It was this Earthlike world that he named Bonestell, your future home.”

There was a sudden interest as the last of his words sunk in and Avon requested that the director repeat his opening remarks. Marcelo looked frustrated, but complied with the request, satisfied that they were now paying attention.

“This is Dr. Adalberto Bohnestiel,” he began again, gesturing toward a man with greying hair in his mid-fifties to come up to join him at the podium. “Eighteen years ago, Dr. Bohnestiel discovered three extrasolar planets orbiting yellow star εEri2, which was categorically labeled as L792-4.  One of these worlds was determined to be terrestrial in origin and possibly habitable by humans. Interstellar probes were launched and after several years of study, the decision was made to attempt colonization of the world that was named Bonestell.” 

Marcelo looked out at the faces now looking on in interest. “As you all know, the Ferdinand Magellan was lost ten years ago with all hands sometime after its last transmission, a routine report from her captain sent the day of her scheduled landing on Bonestell. It is unknown whether or not the ship crashed upon landing, if some disaster befell the ship while still in orbit, or if it was lost on an emergency return trip to Earth.  All we know is there has been nothing but silence since that last report. It has been a mystery for the past decade.”

Marcelo turned to the well-dressed man beside him.  “Since a new expedition is now in preparation to go back there, Dr. Bohnestiel has requested the opportunity to speak to you all in person. Please welcome our favored guest.”

The round-faced astronomer gave the director a cordial smile amidst light applause. He put both hands upon the podium and cleared his throat in preparation to speak.  His eyes were sharply focused and the expression on his face was pleasant as he looked over the small group of Furs that would be going to his planet.

“Good afternoon,” he said in the strong voice of an orator, putting both hands upon the podium. There was only a hint of the Portuguese accent in his voice, and despite that he used no microphone, his words easily carried across the room.  “I am thankful to Dr. Delgado for his gracious invitation that I may speak to you today.”

He picked up a remote from inside the podium and thumbed it on as he turned toward the vid screen behind him.  A high definition photograph of Bonestell appeared with both of its small moons visible in space around it, taken from an orbital satellite. It was a similar picture to the one that Marcelo had shown them days earlier, but the swirling clouds over its surface were thinner and covering less of the continental land masses grouped near one another. The planet and both satellite moons were all waning gibbous. The terminator into night crossed nothing but the bluish-green oceans.

“This is Bonestell,” the astronomer said proudly, turning to face his audience, “your new home. In the years since I first detected the planetary body, probes have studied this world from orbit and even a few landers have gone down to its surface. However much we have learned over the past eighteen years is but a pittance of knowledge on an entirely new ecosystem. You will be provided with material detailing everything that is known about the planet for your use before and after you get there. However, it will be the duty of every one of you to gather and report back to Earth everything you learn, so you will need to document everything, no matter how insignificant you may feel of the discoveries you make.  Anything you learn may have an important impact on the future of others who will follow behind you on eventual colonization.”

He tapped the remote and a light blue map grid overlaid the globe with a reference scale in a lower corner of the image.

“Bonestell has been measured at nine thousand, one hundred seventy-three miles in diameter. It is a little larger than our own Earth, but there is less overall land mass. Eighty-two percent of its surface is covered in saltwater, and as you can see from this image, most of its continents are grouped together in its northern hemisphere, each upon its own tectonic plate not unlike loose interlocking puzzle pieces. It is theorized that it was all part of the same mass as you can see matching and corresponding coastal lines between the six of them, but what caused its breakup is still unknown. As it is now, the channels of seawater separating each are only a few hundred miles in width, but one day the plates may drift farther apart much as the ancient super-continent of Pangaea split up to form the continents of the Earth as we know them today.”

Dr. Bohnestiel pulled out a laser pointer from a pocket and then aimed its ruby red beam at the screen. “There are two more small continents in the southern hemisphere on the far side of the planet from this view, as well as a smattering of scattered islands, but your Second Chance colony will be located here.” He pointed toward the southernmost land mass at an area to the north of a large coastal gulf. A long range of snow-topped mountains paralleled most of the continent's western shoreline before curving inland, and from the reference scale, it looked as if it ended shy of the gulf by a hundred miles. At the tip of the mountain range was a forested area surrounded by prairie, but the distance out was too far to make out any details.  The astronomer thumbed a control on the remote and the image zoomed in closer and closer until the top of the picture showed the end of the mountain range and a wooded region interspersed with lakes, fields and other geological features that the colonists would one day explore on their own. That seemed to be the limit of the satellite's focal zoom, as the image did not move in any closer.

“The chosen site for your settlement is in a small, horseshoe-shaped valley near the southern tip of the mountain range. Fresh spring water from the mountains is in abundance, a vital asset for survival. The valley is a mixture of grassy fields and wooded forest, but not so thick as to make farming impossible. Due to the density of trees, the colony ship will not be able to land much closer than about a mile from the site where you will set up your homes, so once your livestock and supplies are off-loaded, you will have to transport them there yourself.”

The image pulled back out to its original vista and then the astronomer pointed the laser dot toward the larger of the lunar satellites.  “There are two natural satellites, Bonestell α and Bonestell β, but for simplicity will be referred to merely as Alpha and Beta. You will be at liberty to give them actual names if you wish once you have arrived. The rotation of Bonestell is slower than Earth and one day consists of almost exactly thirty-six standard hours. A full revolution of the larger Alpha moon consists of forty-five Bonestellan days. A full revolution of the smaller, more distant Beta moon is sixty-seven Bonestellan days.  Neither of these satellites is tidal locked in a captured rotation, so you are likely to see different surface features depending upon their own specific rotations, rather than seeing the same lunarscape at all times as we do with our own Luna.”

Dr. Bohnestiel put away the laser pointer, pulled at the left sleeve of his shirt and looked at the wristwatch on his arm.  He smiled and held up the timepiece for all to see.  “At thirty-six hour days, your Earth-made watches will no longer be of any use to you there,” he said, dropping his hands back down to the podium. “I have brought with me several cases of special watches the AHCP has had made specifically for those going to Bonestell.  These were made with a thirty-six hour day in mind. Terrestrial clocks start over at twelve o'clock unless they are of the twenty-four hour military variety, but Bonestellan timepieces will go farther and start over at eighteen o'clock for ante meridiem and post meridiem division. I know that thinking of time in this fashion will take some getting used to, but it will be necessary to change your way of thinking for the length of days there. Noon on Bonestell will be at eighteen o'clock, and if you have ever thought a day was long and dragging here, wait until you face your days and nights on Bonestell.  That eighteen-hour half day will be equal to most of a full day here on Earth, so I'm sure your waking and sleep times will vary considerably.”

He pulled out an ordinary-looking watch from a pocket and held it up. It looked like a standard digital watch on a sturdy wristband designed to take a lot of abuse.

“Since watch batteries will be hard to come by on Bonestell, you will use watches powered by kinetic energy. This type of watch has been around for ages and I am sure some of you have had them in the past. The motion of simply moving your arms back and forth runs a tiny generator that charges a long-life capacitor, which in turn will run the thirty-six hour quartz-timed digital display. You will be given more than enough of these to equip all of you in your group, but a single full charge of the capacitor will give you accurate time for months by itself, so unless you're simply in the habit of breaking them, you should have plenty to last you the full five years of your contract or more.” He smiled and added, “After a year or more, however, you should be used to the longer days well enough that you may not even need the watches anymore.”

He put away the timepiece and looked out over the small crowd. “At the chosen site for your colony, you will have the four basic seasons, each lasting about three and a half Bonestellan type months based upon Alpha's rotation. The good news is that the harshness of the winters and summers should be lesser than on Earth due to a lower axial tilt of the planet, which is approximately nineteen degrees. For comparison, the Earth's tilt is approximately twenty-three point five degrees. Some of the other habitable terrestrial planets we've sent Furs to have had harsher climates, so it looks like Bonestell might be our lucky world.”

The astronomer smiled and put one hand upon the podium and the other into the pocket of his slacks. “In many ways, I envy you,” he said. “You will be true explorers of new lands. While things may appear similar to Mother Earth, there will be differences all around, and you will be making discoveries on a daily basis.  However…” he paused and took on a serious expression, “all traces of the Ferdinand Magellan were lost before there was any confirmation that she'd landed at the very spot where you will be going, and the satellite stationed in geosynchronous orbit there stopped transmitting shortly thereafter.”

There was a brief troubled look on his face. “Aside of the fact that I discovered the planet, I have a more personal stake in seeing you successfully colonize this world.  My niece, Mariana was among the colonists who were lost and it is in her memory that I am here to speak to you today.”

The astronomer lifted his chin and looked out across his small audience, the moment of melancholy gone.  “Upon landing, you must be very, very careful.  Our knowledge of the actual flora and fauna is sparse and the dangers there are unknown, but let me tell you what I do know about the characteristics of the planet itself...”  

*** 

Although there were no friends or family who could have responded to an Open House invitation, Jon had enjoyed the day visiting with those who had come to see his associates. He'd had a moment of déjà vu when Jenni introduced her identical twin sister Jana to him and Kristen. The woman looked just as Jenni had when she'd first arrived at the Institute. Her mannerisms and the tonal quality of her original voice matched too. The pair of them standing side by side looked almost like the before and after pictures hanging in the Felis Wing entrance hall.

“It's too bad that Dante isn't here to meet her,” Kristen whispered to Jon when they had a moment alone. “I think he would have been in heaven standing between Jenni and Jana.”

Jon returned her conspiratorial grin. “Somehow I don't even think Jana's engagement ring would have stopped him from flirting with her.”

“Jenni will miss her sister's wedding next month with the timing of our departure, so it's a good thing they get to see each another one last time. Jana seems like she's accepted Jenni's transformation well enough. I don't think they've left one another's side since they got together.”

“Did you have anyone come visit?” Jon asked her idly. “I still have family, but they all believe I was executed.” He frowned a moment but then shook it off. “I miss them, but after all the fuss I made about the way I hated Furs, I don't think I could stand for them to see me this way. It's probably better they think I'm dead with my ashes dumped in a rusty old barrel beneath the prison. “

“I'm sorry about that,” Kristen said, placing the fingers of a hand on his arm. “I know how hard it is to give up your family. You know why I'm here and why I can't contact my family either. Like you, it's imperative none of them know where I really am.”

Jon glanced at her. “Do they think you're dead?”

She shook her head. “No, as far as they know, I've been traveling the world.  I know a stewardess who agreed to send postcards to my folks from the various places she went to. I wrote out a bunch of them in generic wording and then paid her a good sum to send them out periodically – not all the time, but just enough to keep the family informed that I was still around somewhere.  Unfortunately, she should be running out of them soon, so eventually my folks will think I've disappeared.”

“Does your stewardess friend know where you are?”

“No. I told her that I really would be doing some traveling, but didn't want the family knowing where. She and I had gotten along well in college, so she agreed to do this for me when I gave her a financial incentive. That way, if my creditors ever caught up with her, she wouldn't have anything real to tell them about my whereabouts.”

Jon looked at her sympathetically, but then he presented his elbow to her with a smile. “Well then — let's go see if we can find someone else to introduce us to their folks. Perhaps they will regale us with embarrassing stories about them that we can use later for blackmail.”

Kristen chuckled and threaded her arm through his. “That sounds sneaky and fun. Who should we target first?”

They had only taken a handful of steps when Cheryl and Michael rounded the corner of the Clark Savage building at a full run; when they saw Jon and Kristen, they altered their course straight for them.

“Jon!” Cheryl exclaimed.

“What's going on?”

“Aaron and Gerard are beating each other’s brains out!” Michael answered.

Jon gave Kris an exasperated look and gestured back the direction they'd come from. “Take me to them,” he grumbled.  “Any idea what it's about?”

Both couples dropped to all fours for running speed and took off across the grounds. “I think they're … fighting over one … of the bear sows,” the Swift fox replied between lopes.

“It was Dara,” Cheryl supplied. “Now that we're … going to colony … she's been playing them … against one another … in front of … their families!”

She and Michael led Jon and Kristen to the back side of the Educational Wing where their dorm rooms were located. The two brown bears were taking hard swipes at one another in a mixture of human and ursine fighting techniques. Aaron tried to punch his cousin in the face with a fist, but Gerard knocked his arm aside and then tried to rake his claws across Aaron's middle. Both were roaring incoherently in words that sounded nothing like English and a small crowd was beginning to gather around them.

“Break it up!” Jon shouted. Neither paid him any attention, their focus completely upon one another in the rage of battle. “Knock it off, you lugs!”

Gerard landed a hard backhand aside Aaron's snout and the receiving bear's head rocked backward. It only dazed him for a second and he lunged back at his cousin. The two Ursis males grappled with one another, each trying to get the upper hand.

Jon knew he would probably regret it later since he was still healing on his own, but he took several steps back and then hurled himself forward, slamming his rock-hard body square up against them both with his uninjured side. Each had his weight and leverage focused on his opponent, but the sudden onslaught of weight from another angle bowled them over onto the ground. At the moment they dropped to the grass, Jon put an elbow up hard against the back of Gerard's head and then quickly smacked the flat of the palm with the same hand hard across Aaron's temple, momentarily stunning both. He'd done this in a flash with just one arm, but he could already feel the impact shock deep in his left shoulder where he'd been shot through the muscle.

Carl and Arne rushed in to pull Gerard away from his cousin while he was dazed, while Norman and Hank did the same with Aaron; Arne and Hank each held them in wrestling holds that would not be easy to get out of.

Jon got back up to his feet holding his shoulder and took a moment to look back and forth between them, but when he saw Dara to the side looking smug, he stormed over to her and shoved his face up close to hers.

“Just what the devil are you playing at?” he growled at her. “We're about to leave the Earth behind and you're playing immature games with their hormones! We'll be going into cryogenic sleep soon and if they have to go in with injuries, they'll be coming out with them unhealed by the time we get to Bonestell, arriving with a handicap against whatever we find out there!”

Dara's face registered surprise at being called out in front of the crowd, but she refused to be baited into defending herself. She looked around sheepishly and saw the cousins' relatives staring back at her in the gathered crowd.

“Let me go and leave her alone!” Gerard said hotly. Instead of complying with the first order, the African lion behind him simply tightened his hold on the bear, making him grimace.

Jon whirled on him and gifted the brown Ursis with a glare of his own. “If you and Aaron can't control yourselves, especially in the presence of your families, perhaps Ken should impose sexual suppressants upon you both!  As the medical physician of Second Chance, he'd be well within his rights to keep the peace in the colony – whether we've gotten there yet or not!”

“Ow, ease up, will ya?” Aaron muttered to Hank. “I'm not gonna fight you.” The black bear looked first to Jon, who considered Aaron for a moment before nodding. Hank loosened his hold on the ursine furman hesitantly, but all Aaron did was massage his arms to get the blood flow back.  When Jon looked back at Gerard, the other bear snorted in annoyance, but finally averted his eyes in submission.  The cougar gave Arne a subtle nod and he also released his hold.

Gerard mumbled something beneath his breath, but then he slowly got to his feet and looked around at the mixture of human and furman spectators that had gathered around them. He saw his aunt and uncle whispering quietly with his own parents and suddenly felt foolish for making such a spectacle in front of them.  He cleared his throat to get their attention, and when the four of them looked at him with expressions of disappointment, he sighed aloud.

“I'm sorry,” he said to them. “I shouldn't have lost my cool.” He then turned to his cousin and held out a hand paw. “I apologize for throwing the first punch.”

Aaron looked at him warily and got to his own feet.  He looked at Gerard's proffered hand as if it contained something nasty, but after biting his lip for a moment he took it. “Apology accepted,” he replied. The tone of his voice belied his words, and Jon knew he said them only to placate the crowd. From the look of his relatives' faces, they didn't believe him either, but thankfully no one thought it would do any good to say anything.

Jon stepped forward when they released their handshake and rubbed his aching shoulder, looking from one to another. “Knock the grass and dirt out of your fur and go cool down with something to drink. This is supposed to be a time of reunion with your friends and families while we're still here, so make the best of today instead of being at your worst.”

It took a few minutes for the crowd to disperse once the cousins headed back into the building. Jon leaned up against the stone wall beside Kristen and massaged his shoulder, wishing he'd have thought of a different way to break up the brawl.

Jon gestured to Arne and Hank when both of them just happen to look his way. “Thanks for your help, guys,” he said.

“Sure, no problem,” Hank replied.

“You're welcome,” said Arne.  Jon nodded to both and the two of them left to return to their own families.

Cheryl approached the mountain lion and scratched the brown scalp hair beneath a brand-new cowgirl hat brought in by her visiting brother. The hat was accented with a fresh blue-tipped white feather. “Wow, I can't believe I used to be attracted to those guys,” she said of the cousins. “Are you okay?”

“Jumping into the middle of them in my condition probably wasn't the best thing I could have done,” Jon replied. “Why didn't you run to Marcelo instead of me? He's the one in charge.”

Cheryl exchanged glances with Kristen before looking back up at him with a crooked smile. “No one told you?” she asked. At his puzzled expression, she shrugged and said, “Avon's our leader now and he spread the word to everyone to take any issues that came up to you while he was away. Besides, I don't think Marcelo would have jumped in like you did to stop the fight. He would have just hollered at them until he was hoarse.”

“Once he hears about this, he'll probably get his chance to do some hollering anyway,” Kristen said with a snicker. “You know how he is about public relations with the rest of humanity, relatives included.”

“Okay, I'll accept that,” Jon conceded. “I just didn't expect it.”

“You jumped in of your own accord,” Jasmine remarked from nearby. “You were probably the best one to break them up regardless.”

“Thanks,” Jon murmured, his eyes immediately drawn to the vixen's shaved tail; there was a fine growth of peach fuzz fine fur covering it in her original colors. He shifted his eyes back up to her face, giving her a weary look, and she returned his gaze with a frown. This was the first time that Jasmine had spoken to Jon since her return and she was suddenly feeling submissive. She approached him with her head down and her ears back but looking up at him, meekly holding her hands together in front of her.

“Jon,” she began, “I owe you a sincere apology.  You went to jail in my place and I didn't speak up for your innocence.”  The cougar said nothing, silently rubbing his shoulder. The expression on his face was neutral, so Jasmine was unsure how well he was receiving her. She continued with her gaze down at her feet. “I'm sorry you were accused of my crime, and I hope that one day you can forgive me.”

Jon reached out and put his fingers lightly under her chin. She looked up with moist eyes, but the look on the feline's face was compassionate.  “You were scared,” Jon said quietly, “but it was my own words that were used against me when I was accused, so I don't hold you responsible for that. From everyone else's standpoint, I probably was the most likely culprit to carry through on the threats I had made against Travis.”  He gave her a little smile and shrugged, immediately wincing from the action to his sore muscles. “It would have been nice if they hadn't dragged me off to the sheriff's dusty jail, but I forgive you, Jasmine.”

“Really?” she asked with a difficult swallow.

“Really.”

The vixen suddenly wrapped her arms around his middle and gave him a warm hug, burying her nose up against his chest. Jon returned the embrace and then she stepped back after a moment, wiping her eyes.

“Thank you,” she said. “I've felt just awful about this.”

“You're welcome,” Jon replied. “Don't worry, we're still friends.”  She smiled up at him, but he sighed aloud and grimaced, massaging his shoulder again as he turned back toward the building. “I think I'm going to need an ice pack on this shoulder for an hour or two.”

“I believe we'll be taking solar powered refrigerating units with us to Bonestell,” Kristen mused as she prepared to follow him inside. “Otherwise we might not have any ice for things like ice packs until the wintertime.”

“That's a good point,” Cheryl mused.  “Listen, you guys, I'm going back to the hall to visit with my Mom and my brother.”

Feeling better about herself with Jon's forgiveness, Jasmine put both of her hands upon the Border Collie's arm. “Your brother has broad, strong shoulders,” she said. “Would you introduce me to him?”

Cheryl chuckled. “I'm sure he'd be delighted to meet you, Jazz,” she replied. “He's already been checking you out since he got here!”

“Oh, he has, has he?” the vixen remarked in growing delight. “Let's not waste any time, then!”

Jon watched the females go and then he looked down at the lioness beside him. “I'm going to get some ice and then I think I'll lie down for a while.”

“Would you like some company?” Kristen asked quietly. “You know I don't have anyone here to visit with myself, and I hate to say it, but I'm tired of trying to keep track of all the relatives' names and faces.”

Jon offered his elbow to her again. “I'll let you bag up the ice for me, and as your reward, you can relax beside me and listen to me snore.”  

*** 

Avon eased his bulk out of the taxi cab the next afternoon, paid the driver with a tip and then thanked him for the ride. He hefted his overnight bag in one hand and turned toward the iron gates of the Institute as the vehicle pulled away. Parked in front of the gates was Marcelo's cart, though the director was not behind the wheel.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Jon said brightly. “How was your trip out into the world?”

The bear gave him a pained expression and sat on the back seat of the cart. The suspension dropped nearly to the ground, but managed to hold the grizzly's weight somehow. “I would have been better off staying here,” he complained. “I haven't had any sleep since I left.”

Jon twitched an ear as he put the cart into motion, heading back through the gates with a wave at Martin. “Odd,” he said, “I never pictured you as the kind to party all night long. You don't look so good.”

“No parties,” Avon responded wearily. “I was harassed the whole time – on the ride down to Saranac Lake, on the bus to Albany, and constantly while in town. I couldn't get a room for the night, even at Hotel Six-Six-Six, and I barely found any places willing to sell me food to eat. Someone even called the zoo on me and I had to show my ID to get out of that one, even though I was wearing clothes! As soon as I get something in my stomach, I'm going to shower and then sleep until time we leave the Earth.”

He looked over at Jon and shook his head. “I saw nothing but the kind of people your class encountered down in Florida. Marcelo has high hopes for human and furman relationships, but things are a long way from the kind of dreams he has. The only person who showed me any kind of kindness was that cab driver bringing me back and I think that was only because I had cash. I think I've lost a little of the conviction I originally had about our purpose, Jon. We're going out there to find a new world that some of them may one day move out to, but now I don't think I care. My purpose for going has changed. I don't give a flip whether or not Bonestell is habitable for humans. I just want it habitable for us.  I'm going out there to be an explorer. Once we leave this rock, I'm bidding the Earth good riddance!

Jon frowned but said nothing. He didn't want Avon to know he thought that if the leader of their colony had lost faith in their mission, how were any of them supposed to make it on another world? A leader was supposed to keep his followers inspired, to keep them believing what they did was worth the effort and loneliness of being separated from their friends and loved ones for the rest of their lives in order to pave the way for future generations.

It was unfortunate that Avon had been the one to win the contest. Anyone else would have griped and complained about the trip, simply counting it as nothing more than a bad memory, but this is the one person who would set the tone for those who followed him. Attitude was everything.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.

Special THANKS go to Quantel Eastland for suggesting the name "Second Chance" for the colony group name.